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The Unholy Catfish

by Clay Coppedge
During an otherwise somnolent Sunday sermon put forth many years ago when I was but a wee lad, the preacher jolted me and at least a few others from our respective reveries with this pronouncement: “The catfish is an unclean animal.”

Leading up to that statement he had talked about the human body as a temple of God, one not be profaned with tobacco, alcohol or, apparently, catfish. He cited Deuteronomy and a verse about “unclean animals,” which included fish without scales. That doomed the catfish, a popular game fish for local anglers young (like me) and old (like my parents) alike.

My father paraphrased that great philosopher, Jerry Clower, by saying that the reverend had “quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.” As a kid, I didn’t know who to believe, my preacher or my dad.

One thing I had learned in church was that there were a lot of ways to go to Hell. Since I had not yet profaned my body with tobacco or alcohol, this catfish deal seemed to present a legitimate roadblock on my way to Heaven, a place I would apparently share with my preacher and no one else.

The preacher’s comments stayed in the back of my mind in the days following the sermon but became a real problem a couple of weeks later when my friend Donnie asked if I wanted to ride my bike out to Buffalo Lake and do some fishing.

Well, of course I did. This, along with sanctioned visits to Prairie Dog Town in Mackenzie Park and clandestine excursions to the forbidden caliche pit, was a prime summertime activity with my buddies and me. Donnie and I made a big production of it, usually cooking our fish over an open fire and washing it down with several soft drinks.

This time I wasn’t so sure. Donnie’s father also happened to be a preacher so I was a little confused. Surely, his father knew that Donnie would probably come in contact with an unclean animal at Buffalo Lake. If Donnie’s father thought it was all right and my own father didn’t care I felt I had a strong consensus to go fishing.

The ride to the lake was long and dangerous as it skirted the speed and thunder of Loop 289 but we were young and stupid and so we didn’t care. This was sort of a Tour De Lubbock for us. As we pedaled closer to the lake caught a faint whiff from the cattle processing plant on the edge of town. That meant the wind had shifted, which might affect the fishing. Also, I noticed a small herd of cows all sitting down as we rode past them. That was a bad sign too.

So much for superstitions. We made it to our favorite cove and used the bloody innards of a rabbit we killed with a pellet gun as bait. When that was gone, we switched to worms. It didn’t matter. We caught a fish, mostly catfish, nearly every time we cast. This was what you would call a banner day, and all thoughts of Hell and perdition vanished.

We threw most of the fish back, keeping just three of the biggest ones to eat. I was Davy Crockett and he was Daniel Boone. We knew but didn’t care that the two never hung out together; we knew who we were.

There was something fishy about those catfish but neither one of us wanted to be the one to complain, to ruin an otherwise perfect afternoon. Would Davy or Dan’l complain? No way. We each choked down the equivalent of one fish apiece, then climbed on our bikes and headed back toward the neighborhood.

We hadn’t gone very far before the rumblings began. The rumblings came from our stomach and were followed by sharp pains, which preceded a really unnecessarily long period of throwing up. By the end we had nothing left on our stomachs but we were still vomiting. This was not only insulting but seemingly impossible as well.

A neighbor in an El Camino saw Donnie and I sitting pale and dazed by the roadside and stopped to pick us up. “Medic!” I yelled. Our neighbor threw the bikes in the back and then consigned us to the same place. That proved to be a good move on his part because as it happened we weren’t quite finished puking.

After a long and unpleasant night in which I glimpsed the fiery gates of Hell every time I closed my eyes, I struggled out of bed the next day and accepted the challenge that breakfast presented. As the day wore on I felt better by small degrees and was almost back to normal when my dad got home from work at the local paper, where he was an editor.

The night before I had told him I was sick as a punishment from God for eating those catfish when I had been told by a man of God that they were an unclean animal. He lost a good deal of sympathy for me at that point and left me to wrestle with the demons on my own. “They’re not even an animal,” he said. “They’re a fish.”

When he got home from work the next day he dropped the front page of the second section in front of me and said, “You might be interested in that story at the bottom of the page.”

“God Punishes Wayward Youths!” the headline blared.

Not really. The story was about an “accident” at the cattle processing plant. A lot of, uh, waste products from the facility got funneled down the wrong chute or something and ended up entering the lake not far from our favorite fishing hole. I sort of lost all respect for catfish when I realized that they actually thrive on this kind of diet.
* * *
A couple of decades later I wrote what I thought was a fairly insightful essay for an outdoors magazine. The piece was titled “Ten Reasons To Hate Catfish.” The story ran in the magazine under the headline: “9 Reasons To Hate Catfish.”

The editors, without comment, cut reason number one: “The catfish is unholy.” Instead, “Catfish are ugly” led off the piece.

The main reason I became a fly-fisherman was to make it less likely that I would hook another unholy catfish. This led to a long obsession chronicled in another story, and it also led to redemption and acceptance.

A couple of years after my reasons to hate catfish were published I was with another fishing buddy on Barton Creek outside of Austin. The creek at that time was virtually pristine, as was the land where untold dozens of shopping centers and housing developments now stand.

In the course of this idyllic afternoon, I caught a catfish on some kind of small streamer, killing my conviction that catfish wouldn’t hit anything that didn’t smell bad. My buddy didn’t think much of the “catch and release” philosophy, saying it was like playing with your food. Rather than tell him my life story as it related to catfish, I accepted his offer to fry the fish and fixings if I would buy the beer.

Of course, those clear water catfish were delicious. It had taken decades but I had finally made my deal with catfish. If I go to Hell, it won’t be because of them.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
7-10, 2008 Column


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